“…I dreamed a dream in time gone by…”.
Fantine’s famous song opener in the classic Broadway musical Les Misérables is brought to life in such a profound new way on screen, by the lovely Anne Hathaway, that the song has been lifted from its already exultant heights to new levels of beauty previously undiscovered. So goes the highlighted scene in a film filled with magical moments and tear-inducing, heartbreaking, awe-inspiring wonder.
What Ms. Hathaway brought in her Oscar winning performance is truly something that was perhaps by many not entirely thought possible from the girl who once played a pretty princess and ached almost visibly from film to film in her early career to gain greater depth and achieve true emotion in her often seemingly stilted performances.
But in time and from years of practice, Ms. Hathaway has finally achieved a zenith in her career, having delivered a slick turn as Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, and most precisely within those few brief minutes as Fantine singing that glorious, sorrowful, truly magnificent song, she has once for all proven a level of acting prowess that many long to achieve. Under the decadent and strongly capable hands of director Tom Hooper, every emotion, every thought, feeling, pain, and sorrow is felt by the audience through every gasp, tear, and perfectly in-tune note hit throughout that scene. So close up are we brought to her melancholy visage, it’s almost too much to bear. And yet it is at once so tragically beautiful as well, to see this character, Fantine, this woman whose very life has been reduced to such depths of shame and heartache that she can simply bear it no longer. Her child, her love, her very essence of being and wholeness have all been so wholly stripped away from her. And Ms. Hathaway is able to enter into all of that misery so perfectly, and in such a profound yet small manner—one that would’ve simply not been possible on stage, in the show’s traditional format—it’s truly a wonder to behold, as it’s played out each moment in her doleful physiognomy.
And this is merely the beginning.
Les Misérables is so many things. It is a soaring epic about the French Revolution. It is the tale of redemption of Jean Valjean. It is a love story of Cosette and Marius. It is a gut-wrenching display of the unrequited love of Eponine. It is the mysterious misfortune of Javert, unable to let go. It is the humor of the Thénardiers. It is the tragic death of Gavroche, Enjolras, and others. It is the forgiving heart of a bishop. It is the agonizing downfall and death of Fantine. And it is all brought together in music so grandiose, so soaring, so epically beyond any other musical, that it’s, as aforementioned, all (only just) nearly too much to bear. But when one allows each of these elements; each of these themes of love, redemption, forgiveness, heartbreak, war, peace, grudges, calumny, good, evil, life, death, and many more; each of these phenomenal characters, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), Javert (Russell Crowe), Fantine (Anne Hathaway), Cosette (young–Isabelle Allen, old–Amanda Seyfried), Éponine (Samantha Barks), Marius (Eddie Redmayne), Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone), Enjolras (Aaron Tveit), the bishop (Colm Wilkinson—who played Jean Valjean back in the original Broadway cast on stage), Thénardier (Sacha Baron Cohen), Madame Thénardier (Helena Bonham Carter), and others; all of this to all truly sink into one’s mind, heart, and consciousness, the combined force of it all is so powerful, so beautiful, so emotional, and so worth the ride.
Hugh Jackman is a tour de force as Valjean. Enduring the slings and arrows of misfortune that that character goes through, it’s incredible to see his transformation. From the first moment of that opening scene: “Look down, look down, don’t look ’em in the eye; look down, look down, you’re here until you die…” you are immediately drawn in to the suffering of these people, these miserable ones, and in particular, of this one penetrating character, Jean Valjean and his quest to stay alive.
Mr. Jackman hits all the right notes in every powerful song; his rendition of “Who Am I” and chilling “Bring Him Home” breathe new life into the masterful musical classics by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel, and Herbert Kretzmer.
All of the music holds up magically on screen. Young Cosette’s “Castle on a Cloud,” the humorous Thénardier’s “Master of the House,” the soaring “Red and Black,” “Do You Hear the People Sing,” that phenomenal finale, “At the End of the Day,” “One Day More,” the charming Gavroche’s “Little People,” the harmonious “Heart Full of Love,” Marius’s despondent “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” and Eponine’s great cry to the true misery of unrequited love, “On My Own,” delivered so perfectly by actress Samantha Barks, in the rain… all these and more, which bring Victor Hugo’s novel to life in such an otherworldly fashion as they do when performed on stage, are seen here on screen, able to capture every emotion so close up in all the actors’ faces, and do true justice by these particular actors in a fresh and deeply moving way.
The performance of Russell Crowe as Javert has come under scrutiny by some, to which shall only this be said: though it is apparent that he has not the exact vocal training and expertise of his fellow cast like Mr. Jackman, Ms. Barks, or Ms. Hathaway, it takes not away from his fierce turn as Javert. Mr. Crowe’s acting prowess is more than capable at delivering a performance, which he does, and it does full justice to the character, and his own take on Javert is simply that: his interpretation and delivery. The fact is, these characters are so profound and so much larger than life that anyone up to the task can bring his or her own take to each of them, as all the actors herein do, and they can deliver something new, and if they’re up to the challenge, deliver something good and beautiful and lasting.
Tom Hooper’s directing choices were spot on, and in so many of the scenes, where we’re taking right up to the actors’ faces, as close as we can possibly be at times, to feel every emotion along with them, is truly a sight to behold.
The actors, as is now famously well-known, were recorded singing live, rather than mouthing along to pre-recorded tracks, as is often done in filmed musical scenes. But where some may think this delivers a less than perfect performance, it can rather be seen as bringing an authenticity that is unparalleled. It would possibly not have occurred that that performance be drawn out of Ms. Hathaway, were she to have done a pre-recorded/voiceover track. It just simply would not have had that intensity, that immediacy, that reality that it so thoroughly and truly possessed. And sincere, felt emotion in song ought to be praised highly over static vocal technical perfection—the likes of which can sometimes be found on Glee or other places, (where talented people abound to be sure), but sometimes that talent is squelched by studio “magic” and auto-tune messes (which is especially odd when given to people who don’t even “need” it).
One of the mysteries of the story that always captures viewers is Javert’s demise. It’s very hard to come to understand fully how someone could hold onto a grudge so minor (such as Valjean stealing a loaf of bread), for his entire life, leading ultimately to his quietus. Certainly it’s something not able to be easily explained, but is rather something for deep thought. This man simply could not let it go. It’s disturbing, and yet, on some level can be seen in various real-life situations in other forms throughout history and literature—Helen of Troy starting a war, Briony in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, practically (seemingly) the entire history of the Middle East (not to oversimplify, but…); a grudge can be much more powerful than it should have any right to be.
In any case, Les Misérables is a profound story, a sweeping musical, and now thanks to all involved, a deeply resonant and simply amazing cinematic masterpiece of a motion picture. Do yourself a favor, and watch this film. It’s a dream of a lifetime we’re all fortunate enough to behold such a wonder as this.